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28 February 2011

Vauen pipes

       -Posted by adam-

We began carrying Vauen pipes back in June, on the prospect that they would do well with smokers looking for quality machine-shaped pipes that sport 9-millimeter filters. Thankfully, people love them! Only recently did we get another large shipment and the variety of designs became instant topics for discussion around the office. While most of us had never tried to smoke a pipe with a filter, aside from the Dr.Grabow or 6-millimeter Savinelli triangular-balsa, this was worth investigating. Those of us that tried them out were initially worried about the seemingly-restricted draw due to the charcoal-filled paper filter, but less aggressive puffing actually yielded to a slower-burning bowl with subtly different flavors. Of course, these can also be smoked sans filter, or fit with a 9-millimeter adapter (typically made of delrin and drilled 5/32" through the center like a standard tenon - though we do not carry these, yet).

As mentioned, the range of shapes and finishes on these pieces are what really grabbed our attention. Few companies make 9-millimeter pipes, and they are nearly all noticeable by a bulge in the shank to fit the apparatus. With Vauen, the design plays off of larger, tapered stems that hide the filter like a rabbit in a magician's hat. For the shapes that are not perfectly-turned cylinders (poker), cones (dublin), pear, etc. (with acrylic bowl bases and stems which plug directly into the bowl, cob-style), the designs often feature military mounts. These are all true mortise and tenon pipes, but appear much like Peterson System pipes by separation of shank and stem design. For the bowls themselves, very elegant shapes are produced, including a ball sitting atop a column, a billiard with an elegant keel, and a rounded-off paneled brandy. It's exciting to see these pipes and we are confident that they will do very well. Have a look at them, and you might be surprised yourself!

Posted by adam at 11:35 AM | Link | 1 comment

St. Patrick's Day Cometh
 The Peterson Pipes We Want

       -Posted by sid-

It must be the luck of the Irish!

The St. Patrick's Day Peterson shipment is here! Bobby and I are busy working on the photographs now and the pipes will be added to the February 28th update (Today). The Peterson St. Patrick's Day pipes feature a Shamrock with March 17, 2011 stamped on the band. Here is a sample, but the entire batch will be available to view soon. A premature "Happy St. Patrick's Day" from!

Posted by sid at 11:30 AM | Link | 1 comment

24 February 2011

Exploring New Blends
 Distinguished Gentleman

       -Posted by ted-

We started selling E. Hoffman's Distinguished Gentleman a couple of weeks ago and since then I’ve been very intrigued. The tin reads:

An elegant & captivating pipe tobacco comprised of select choice leaf, gently fragrant with an intoxicating aroma. The taste and aroma preferred by men of distinction.

Sounds fancy, doesn’t it? Today Eric and I decided to break open a tin and find out for ourselves just what this stuff is all about. All in the name of ‘scientific exploration’ mind you. Because we are diligent gentlemen, if not distinguished, we took notes. Here are the results:


Distinguished Gentlemen lit up readily, though I hadn't dried it out at all previous to packing it into a decent-sized Luciano bent dublin (chamber roughly 0.8 x 1.7 inches). This was a pleasant surprise, given it comes fairly moist from the tin. The initial flavor was of a distinct yet subtle, sweet, woody, toasted marshmallow character. It was, in fact, considerably more subtle than I expected by the scent of the tobacco in the tin (granted, I rarely smoke aromatics), which is perhaps thanks to the latakia. While the toasted marshmallow flavor quickly recedes, a slight sweetness remained throughout the smoke. The latakia, however, never really made itself noticeable directly. Even some pretty strong puffing failed to produce any "sting" to the flavor, nor any tongue-bite, though I did succeed in making the pipe gurgle more than once. A very mellow blend overall, easy to smoke and innocuous in fragrance to those not partaking (I asked Susan when she passed by). Suitable to its name, I'd say it was a blend with "good manners", i.e. not a sugar-and-gumdrops bomb like some aromatics, and the latakia acting only in a supporting role.


Initially concerned that I had not dried out the tobacco sufficiently (the stuff comes pretty wet) I was surprised how well Distinguished Gentleman stayed lit and how cool it smoked in my corn cob. In addition to the blend’s delightful smoking qualities, I found this rough cut of burley, Virginia, latakia, and Cavendish to work together harmoniously to produce a curiously sweet, yet nutty, flavored smoke, which reminded me at times of toasted amaretto. The latakia was difficult to pin down on the tongue, but could be detected through the nose. Distinguished Gentleman is a very mild, but flavorful cross-over style blend that really came together for me about half-way through the bowl. Good stuff.

Posted by ted at 4:00 PM | Link | 4 comments

17 February 2011

Fort McClelland

       -Posted by adam-

I was walking around our shipping and receiving area recently and found it impossible to reach Bobby's office, farther back in the building. There were boxes of McClelland tobacco all over the place. Ted looked up at me with desperation in his eyes, waiting on my reply to his question of "Adam, do you have a lot of stuff on your plate today?". Feeling suddenly like a moonshiner unexpectedly confronted by a man with a badge and a large hat, I quickly came up with a reply which I felt best matched my assessment of the situation.

"Um...Yep. I really have a lot of stuff do, including history and material paragraphs for a peppering of pipe brands". Ted, of course, understanding that this was a project I began a few months ago and needed to update. Would anyone blame me? Ted, Susan, and Pam were all moving boxes full of tinned tobacco and five-pound bags of bulk like sandbags around a fort. Naturally, I had taken his question to be a fingers-crossed-behind-his-back inquiry to see if I would like to help them. As it turns out, we just needed someone to write a blog for today. I carefully navigated my way back to Bobby's office to see what he was working on, which turned out to be a lot. It is a Thursday (update day) after all. Talking with him for a few minutes over the prospect that he take a photograph of something for me to write about, he giggled at my first idea, which was something about Ted looking like a Civil War soldier with his beard and pipe. We figured that taking a candid photo of the three of them working frantically to unpack tobaccos yet seemingly building an impromptu fortress in the receiving area would be perfect.

Fort McClelland. It has a nice ring to it, and was an accurate description to what they were building, albeit more the sort that boys might build to keep girls out, or use as a redoubt during a snowball fight, than to protect against cannon and rifle fire. Though I was only there for a few minutes, I would estimate that the number of tins was in the hundreds, and the boxes alone seemed to be counted in the dozens. As I sit here at my computer typing without the fear of mortars-shells of tobacco going off or an invasion of the shipping crew to pirate away tins as "forage", I wonder how they are getting along. Is that Sid giving a rebel yell from the back ground? Ted seems to be raising a knife, as if to fend off from invaders... Okay, so maybe he's just opening another box - but I still like to think of them building a fort.

Posted by adam at 4:02 PM | Link | 2 comments

15 February 2011

No Smoke, No Show
 On Clarence Gatemouth Brown

       -Posted by sid-

Blue and yellow lights penetrate drifting whorls of pipe smoke suspended in silence. I can feel the audience’s anticipation. A tall man takes the microphone and announces, "Memphis - the moment you have waited for - Clarence Gatemouth Brown." The band kicks off a swing tune and Gatemouth saunters onto the stage, smoking a pipe and wearing western garb. He's in his seventies, with his custom Gibson Firebird guitar hanging over his shoulder. He begins to play swing lines as a horn player would, but on his guitar. As the set continues, Gatemouth moves from Texas swing, to a bluegrass fiddle tune on the viola. I really enjoy an eclectic set list and Brown always delivers. A voice like gravel mixed with molasses comes from the lean old music veteran. It's more powerful live than any recording can capture.

Throughout his career, Clarence Brown cleared hurdles and broke the rules of the music business as a matter of course. Brown loved the blues and played them well. However, he did not like the classification of "blues musician", or even "bluesman". He preferred no label at all, stating that he plays, “American and world music, Texas style.” He was born in Louisiana and his family moved to Texas when he was young. Although T-Bone Walker influenced Gatemouth, his music was not limited to blues. It was eclectic mix of Cajun, blues, country, rhythm & blues, and jazz genres. He approached classical style as well as roots and contemporary music. Perhaps he would be better known if he had chosen a less diverse repertoire. However, his influence on music is evident, and his criticism on musicians is harsh. He spoke his mind. For instance, when critiquing blues musicians Gatemouth said, "They were just coppin’ off of [T-bone Walker]. Now, when I first started I played a couple of T-Bone’s licks…I got away from that and I developed my own style…I can play stuff now that there’s no way in the world that B.B. King or any of those other guys can play…they’re all friends of mine, and they’ll admit they can’t play it.” He commented on the music scene of New Orleans in the1970's stating, "Everybody’s trying to sound like each other and they’re doing a damn good job of it. But I don’t want to be associated with it.”

The Gatemouth brown Philosophy:

Gatemouth played numerous instruments, including the guitar, viola, mandolin, drums, and harmonica. He began playing drums in his teens, and learned to play the fiddle and mandolin by age ten. The swing music he played in his youth influenced the way he approached other instruments. This is around the time he received the moniker "Gatemouth". I have heard a few accounts that differ on who gave him the nickname. However, the reason for his nickname is the same in all accounts. Here is the story in Gatemouth's own words: When asked who gave him the nickname he said, "The kids, actually… we used to have to go in Chapel and sing these spiritual songs before we would go to class. The PA system went out and when it did, I kept singing over the chorus. I was the lead singer. And when we finished the teacher said, "Brown, you don't need no microphone, you've got a voice like a gate." And the kids started saying "Gatemouth" and, man, I got mad a while, but the hotter I got the more they would call me that. So I got stuck with it and just worked with it to my advantage."

In addition to his nickname and signature western clothing, Gatemouth was known to be a pipe smoker. Several of his album covers have pictures of him smoking a pipe. When I lived in Dallas, I had many talks with Sam Myers (blues singer and harmonica player). In one conversation, we discussed Brown's versatile style and the fact that he enjoyed to smoke a pipe. Sam recalled a story from the 1940’s wherein Gatemouth stole a T-bone Walker show. Walter was feeling ill and dropped his guitar by accident. Gatemouth took the opportunity to grab the guitar and play. Sam said, “The crowd loved it. They started throwing money at Gatemouth. T-bone was not happy about it at all!” Gatemouth would, as a rule, sit at shows smoking his pipe with his custom blended pipe tobacco. Sam also told me that if he could not smoke - he would not do the performance. Adam recalled one particular interview he had seen with Gatemouth. When asked about smoke-free venues, Gatemouth told them sternly if he could not enjoy his pipe, he would play elsewhere - no smoke, no show.

Throughout his career, Gatemouth continued to redefine himself. For instance, while in Nashville in the early 1960's he made several appearances on the TV program Hee Haw, and recorded a series of country singles. He also hosted an R&B television show in Nashville called The Beat. In 1979, he and country guitarist Roy Clark recorded "Makin' Music," an album of blues and country songs that includes a cover of the Duke Ellington classic "Take the A-Train." In the late 1960's Mr. Brown was a Sheriff in New Mexico. Talk about breaking barriers!

His discography is too large to list in this forum, but here are a few of my favorite Gatemouth albums:

Alright Again, 1982. Grammy Award/ Best Traditional Blues Album

Pressure Cooker, 1986. Grammy nomination for Best Blues Recording (my favorite blues label- Alligator Records)

Gate Swings, 1997, Produced by Jim Bateman and John Snyder.

He played fiddle and guitar on Professor Longhair’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Gumbo album. (1974)

In addition to countless recordings, other credits include eight W.C. Handy Awards, and induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1999. Gatemouth influenced numerous guitar players such as Albert Collins, J.J Cale, Guitar Slim, Roy Buchanan, Johnny Copeland, and countless others. Frank Zappa named him his all-time favorite guitarist and it has been suggested that "Okie Dokie Stomp" should be the new Texas National Anthem.

Here is a video of Gatemouth Brown and Roy Clark on the TV show Austin City Limits. They are doing a cover of a Louis Jordan - Fleecie Moore song called "Caldonia":

Have a listen, and a bowl in honor of Clarence Gatemouth Brown… and pack a custom blend.

Posted by sid at 5:00 PM | Link | 6 comments

14 February 2011

Check Your Cellar

       -Posted by adam-

Fresh tobacco is a good thing, but aged tobacco can be a thing of amazing complexity and refinement. Given time, temperature, and humidity control, cellaring favorite tobaccos in their original tins or mason jars allows slow fermentation to the point that Virginias will develop sugar crystals that will come to the forefront during smoking. Likewise, Latakia and Orientals in blends will marry with other Virginia leaf to become something as desirable as vintage wines left to mature. Burleys change a little bit, and aromatics tend to have a shorter time of improvement before they begin to sour or lose the flavors that make them unique. Many of us cellar tobaccos in tins.

But I’m not here to educate on how much time blend-X takes to mature or how sharp flavors in young Virginias fade over time, or even about stockpiling favorites that are on the market. I’m here to say ‘keep an eye on what you have stored away.’

Pipe smokers can cellar tobaccos however they choose but many of us like to keep them in original tins because they can increase in value or age differently. I'm not as concerned about the stuff in mason jars, but tins should be periodically checked - just in case. Some good rules of thumb are to keep them in a dark place that is low in humidity, such as a closet, and away from windows that may allow the sun to heat up the tins and contents inside. After a little while in a humid environment troubling things can happen to a beloved tin. Namely rust.

Greg Pease and I talked recently about tobacco packaging. Only when I chose to write this blog did I even take notice that some tins are made from steel while others are aluminum. McClelland uses steel tins and C&D (makers of G.L. Pease tobaccos and others) used steel in the past but are using aluminum today. Tobacco tins are often coated with white material that doesn't rust, but the seams can sometimes cause problems as much as the base.

I've been cellaring some Tribute that was tinned in 2001 and was checking over my stash when I noticed some rust spots on the base. This was not the fault of the manufacturer or the tobacco inside; it's just humid here in South Carolina. My apartment gave me a dehumidifier to put in one of our rooms, and the thing sucked out about a gallon of water from the air in 10 hours. Too bad I didn't have one of these earlier, because the moisture problem could have been avoided. Once I noticed the pitting on the bottom of this tin, I carefully opened the tin and pinched out the contents to put in a mason jar for storage. Luckily the tobacco was fine, but I left the bottom half-inch to discard in case some rust was mixed in. Other tins weren't so lucky. You could take this advice or leave it but periodically checking your tins of tobacco for rust on the base or staining is a good idea. When one rust spot develops, others aren't far behind and soon they will eat through the tin, leaving your carefully sealed and preserved blends neither sealed nor preserved. It's well worth the time to check them over, or just go ahead and jar them when you buy them. Aging will still happen in a mason jar and you won't have to worry about rust ruining some of your favorite blends.

Posted by adam at 2:00 PM | Link | 8 comments

11 February 2011

Before and After
 A Tribute to Tom and Bill

       -Posted by ted-

We put a lot of effort into cleaning our estate pipes. And when I say we, mostly I mean Tom and Bill. These guys arrive at the office earlier than all of us just to get a head start on restoring old, often beat up pipes. They’re pros.

We thought it would be fun, in light of a lot of the recent on-going discussion regarding our estate restoration process, to show off just what these two do.

Many of the pipes we receive from customers look a little something like this:

Then Tom and Bill get their hands on the pipe. The result? This:

Thanks, fellas, for your hard work up there in the attic.

Posted by ted at 4:30 PM | Link | 3 comments

10 February 2011

Slicing and Dicing Plug Tobaccos
 Easy with Proper Tools and Technique

       -Posted by adam-

I was talking with Greg Pease recently about his JackKnife Plug before it was yet released. My initial question was how he preferred to process the tobacco. For some, getting a plug of pipe tobacco can seem daunting, if not downright terrifying. There is nothing to be afraid of, but different techniques will yield different results. I first tried JackKnife in a shag cut, which is how Greg really likes it. You can read about JackKnife and how to process it on Greg's “The Briar & Leaf Chronicles".

For our own experiments I headed down to the store and removed a small piece of Samuel Gawith Cob Plug from its holding jar and attempted to attack it with different techniques - and a big knife. For starters, the knife should be sharp (this is moist leaf, after all). The plug should always be kept in a sealed jar for extended periods of time because trying to cut dried tobacco ends up being like trying to shave wood. The tobacco we used was perfectly moist and my knife was an inexpensive, yet effective accessory from a sushi kit I purchased at the grocery store.

The knife was sharpened, the wooden cutting board was on a very sturdy table, and the first cut was made by placing the cutting edge about 1/16" from a side of the square plug and carefully slicing back and forth before applying downward pressure. Off came a perfect flake with just the slightest curl. After this, I made the exact same cut but it was about 1/8" wide. The thicker flake proved very easy to cut into match stick sized pieces, that were later cut into cubes. Lastly, gripping the plug and setting the edge of the blade about 1/32” from the edge and pushing down in a slicing motion - like slicing paper thin strips of a tomato - left behind little chocolate curls that rubbed out to a shag with very little effort.

The shag burns very easily all the way down, while the cube cut burns slower with a noticeably deeper taste. The flake can be folded as is, or rubbed to a perfect ribbon.

The rules for best results: sharp knife with no teeth, cutting board on a solid surface that doesn't wobble and very careful slicing. I like to only slice off as much as I need for a bowl or two because the tobacco stays moist in a solid plug and I seem to derive great satisfaction from making the cuts. To me it can be as much fun as preparing a delicious dinner. Have fun!

Posted by adam at 3:18 PM | Link | 2 comments

09 February 2011

Exploring New Blends
 Roll Cake by Mac Baren

       -Posted by ted-

I’m constantly trying new tobacco blends. Undoubtedly, there are so many out there it would take a life time or two to taste them all; this is all part of the fun for me. Sometimes I’m scattered all over the place in my explorations, divided between English, Balkan, Virginia, even aromatic blends, and sometimes I’m focused into a particular kind of blend by a specific manufacturer.

Yet as often as I’m actively burning my tongue off in pursuit of new flavors I am just as regularly returning to old favorites. Take Mac Baren’s Roll Cake, for instance: there’s always a tin on my desk.

These beautiful little spun cut discs, fragrant with sweet honey and berry wheat, rub out easily between the fingers for quick pipe loading. Effortless to light, simple to keep lit, Roll Cake offers up a satisfying smoke rich with nuanced, delicate flavors. Sometimes it’s spicy, sometimes it’s sweet, but it’s always tasty.

If you haven’t yet tried Roll Cake it’s about time you do.

Posted by ted at 4:45 PM | Link | 3 comments

04 February 2011

Reaming Estate Pipes
 Using A Lathe

       -Posted by adam-

Most guys I know could wander around a hardware store equally as long as our wives could browse every style of shoe in a large department store, but after Sykes and I drove to Harbor Freight a few weeks ago to pick up a 7" x 10" metal lathe everyone wanted to play with it. Aside from being fun to use, it’s proved to be a great investment in time, efficiency, and control.

Cleaning estate pipes can often take quite a while. An estate that is lightly smoked usually just needs a few pipe cleaners run through the shank with alcohol. When a pipe is really dirty in the shank or full of cake, hand reamers and bowl reamers are necessary to bring it back to life. A reamer doesn't drill a shank because the tip has no cutting edges and the sharpened sides run parallel along the shank. Ordinarily we use a 4mm reamer that I put in a vulcanite handle to run down dirty shanks and remove quite a bit of tar, ash, and gunk just so we can continue with a few pipe cleaners soaked in alcohol. The same is pretty much true for the bowl. When the cake is thin, light reaming can be done with the senior reamer, or just a piece of sandpaper wrapped around a dowel. If using a knife or a pipe tool, it should be flat against the bowl to allow it to scrape the cake out. Quite often we get estate pipes that have thick cake and we have to use a hand reamer with different diameter scraping heads. It can be tricky to twist both the pipe and the reamer to clean out the bowl and hands get rather fatigued after just a few.

The metal lathe we purchased is pretty much a heavy, bench-mounted, strong-armed employee that can turn the shank reamer and bowl reamer with a lot of torque at low, safe speeds. The shank reamer spins at about 400 RPM, and the bowl reamers spin between 100 RPM and 300 RPM (slower speeds for more control on heavily caked pipes). We've tried using hand drills before, but they spin too fast and there isn't enough torque (or control).

Bill and I went to another hardware store recently looking for a way to modify the square shafts on the bowl reamers expecting that I would just need to take them to my workshop to fit them with aluminum extensions. Finding a 3/8" square socket extension worked perfectly when we wrapped one layer of duct tape around the shaft to make the fit snug. This, my friends, is when the light above our heads went on and smiles covered our faces.

Again, we use the lathe at a low speeds and have surprisingly excellent control over the pipe with both hands. Since the 4mm shank reamer is pointed (but not sharp) we can use two hands to hold the pipe and push it onto the reamer. We also took a 6-inch-long 5/32" bit and ground the tip dull and round in order to ream longer pipes. An unmodified drill bit that is sharp will self-feed into the shank and front of the bowl, so rounding the tip avoids these problems.

In chucking up the socket extension and pushing in the smallest reaming head, we are able to slowly ream the cake and work our way up to larger diameters if needed. Even rotating the pipe is safe on these slower speeds because it only scrapes the cake out of the bowl and isn't sharp enough to cut wood; plus, this comes close to solving how to ream so many bowls of different chamber configurations.

After we ream the bowls and shanks fine detail work is easy. There is very little we can do to improve pipes that had chambers poorly reamed or were smoked out of round. Soft spots in the bowl, which char faster and are noted as spider webbing, are often the cause of uneven reaming if done by hand. If using a knife, these softer areas could concave and cause a bigger problem in the future, so great care must be taken to ream the chamber evenly. With the lathe we are able to restore the chamber so the end result is a smooth surface that is clean to the touch.

The video below is simply a demonstration of these tools without sound or commentary. A machine turning and scraping isn't all that pleasant to listen to, but we felt a short clip of a pipe being reamed would answer a lot of questions about how we do this.

Posted by adam at 11:00 AM | Link | 5 comments

01 February 2011

Famous Pipe Smokers: Jacques Brel
 Singing in French edition.

       -Posted by eric-

Jacques Brel's lyrics teamed with life and the lust for women, wine, and laughter, yet simultaneously they were ominously spiced with a violent awareness of death, estrangement, corruption, obscurity, and oblivion. The very same obscurity and oblivion he himself might have lived in, had he not dared to take to the stage. Despite the richly evocative and utterly singular talent which would eventually make him famous, this French-speaking Flemish prodigy very nearly wound up in obscurity himself; he could have lived out his life running a cardboard factory, following in his father's footsteps. Though he first began to show his talents through forming a small theatre troupe at the age of 16, his notably poor academic performance (failing most of his exams) led his father to insist that he should, at the age of 18, cease his education and instead learn the family business.

Despite his small, and less than promising beginnings, Jacques chose to gamble on the riskier path of a performing artist. Yet, he at the same time had few qualms about taking on responsibility; rather than wait to be drafted, he enlisted in the military in 1948, by 1950 he was married to Thérèse Michielsen, and by 1951 he was a father. Though as he climbed to success he and his wife would come to live separate and distanced lives, and though there were other women, they were never divorced, and in death Jacques would claim "Miche", as his wife was known, to be his sole heir. Though no saint, he had his principles, and Brel stuck to them throughout.

Accounts differ regarding Brel's early career. Some state that an early Catholic-humanist troubadour style held him back. Others, that from the beginning his friends and family, shocked at the unflinching passion and earnestness his lyrics would later be known for, disapproved of his efforts. The one common thread seems to be that meeting Georges "Jojo" Pasquier (who came to be his manager, chauffeur, and closest friend) in 1955 was an important turning point. While his early years were an absolute struggle, in 1954 placing 27th in the Grand Prix de la Chanson competition, out of a field of 28 performers total, Brel persisted, gradually building on those successes that did come his way, refining his work, and collaborating with two talented pianists, François Rauber (who gave Brel the formal training he had until then lacked) and Gérard Jouannest (whose influence and contributions would be seen in many of Brel's most famous songs). By 1957, Jacques Brel had his first hit single, Quand on a Que l'Amour, which would win him the prestigious Grand Prix de l'Académie Charles Cros. Where in 1954 his performance at Paris's famed Olympia music hall had been met with indifference, a return performance in 1958 left the audience stunned. His fame soon spread, and in time his records sold millions in France alone, in at least one case even without any marketing campaign.

Through his deeply developed perception of the human condition, the unmitigated honesty of his songwriting, and his amazing skill, both physically and lyrically, of expression, Brel rose to become one of the biggest names not only in France, but of Europe, his fame eventually spreading to America, where in the 1960s the feature-length musical film Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris would be produced. Its arrangement and cinematography would influence the concept of the music video to this day.

Jacques Brel was, in short, a rare breed of un-romanticizing romantic; a man whose lyrics practically bled a deep love for and perception of life, while simultaneously honoring that love by refusing to cheapen it with saccharine pretense or wishful white-washing; refusing, that is, to portray the object of his love as anything but what it was in truth. It was beautiful, it was rapturous, it was terrifying, it was heartbreaking - and it could only truly be any of those things, because it in truth was all of those things.

Only a man with such an unflinching perspective, and the will to pour it out upon stage, with thousands watching, could sing of port-side prostitutes selling their virtues for a coin, not with derision, or condemnation, but with anger and heartbreak at witnessing the tragedy of the Faustian bargains such women strike, night after night - and likewise those of the sailors who have given their lives to drunkenness and dissipation, and as such find themselves with no women but those they must pay for. And this is just what Brel did in the final part of one of his most famous pieces, Amsterdam, though it was strangely enough a song he only performed on stage, never recording it in studio:

There's a sailor who drinks
And he drinks and he drinks
And he drinks once again
He drinks to the health
Of the whores of Amsterdam
Who have promised their love
To a thousand other men
They've bargained their bodies
And their virtue long gone
For a few dirty coins
And when he can't go on
He plants his nose in the sky
And he wipes it up above
And he pisses like I cry
For an unfaithful love
In the port of Amsterdam
In the port of Amsterdam

Though perhaps best known by francophones for his intensely concentrated lyricism, which could express great complexity in but a few perfectly chosen words (unmatched in English translations), those of us farther removed from our eighth grade French lessons (sorry, Madame Nicholson) often better know him for his performances on stage - performances at once seemingly on the very verge of a Dionysian abandon, yet perfect in the expressiveness of their execution:

It is claimed that the morning Brel finished the lyrics to Amsterdam, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, he read them to a friend and restaurateur by the name of Fernand - and that Fernand was so overcome with emotion that he broke out in tears and took to chopping up sea urchins in an effort to regain his shattered self-composure.

Though his songs have been covered in English by everyone from British pop icon David Bowie, to the American neo-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, none have matched the fire with which Jacques Brel himself burned so brightly. Yet for all the standing ovations he received, Brel never performed a single encore. When the performance ended, it was ended - perhaps a discrete statement on the nature of finality, from a man whose music was in no small part driven by an awareness that everything in human life, be it love or misery, had its own final curtain-call.

Posted by eric at 10:29 AM | Link | 2 comments



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